Africa’s new country

January 26, 2011

David Whitehouse provides the background to the recent referendum in South Sudan, where voters overwhelmingly backed secession.

EXPECTATIONS OF a better life ran high as voters in South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence in mid-January. "You will be able to eat what you want and do what you want," one voter told the New York Times.

That's a tall order, of course, in a new country ravaged by decades of civil war, where most people live on less than 75 cents a day, and nearly half are "food deprived," according to the UN.

Yet festive crowds waited for hours in scorching heat to vote. Turnout was well over the 60 percent threshold for certifying the results, and early returns suggest that the officially tally may exceed 95 percent in favor of secession from Sudan.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president and the man in charge of much of the carnage inflicted in the South, saw the writing on the wall as the election approached. He launched bombing raids in the South as recently as December, but when faced with near-unanimous rejection of his regime--and under heavy pressure from the U.S. and its regional allies--Bashir agreed to honor the result of the vote.

Waiting in line to vote in the referendum
Waiting in line to vote in the referendum (Al Jazeera)

Final terms still need to be worked out before official separation can take place in July, including key points about sharing the proceeds from Africa's third-most productive oil fields. The 2005 peace treaty that ended the civil war also mandated the referendum on secession and specified, in the meantime, that oil money would be split 50-50 between North and South.

Some 80 percent of the proven reserves lie in the South, but all of the oil currently runs through a pipeline to Port Sudan in the North. Many observers predict that a resumption of civil war is unlikely because the two sides need to cooperate if either is to reap significant revenue from oil.

AFTER THE South Sudanese themselves, the next most enthusiastic advocates of Southern secession may be members of the U.S. business and national security establishment. The U.S. supported the Southern rebels in the late phases of the civil war, as the regime in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, became a vocal opponent of U.S. policy in the Muslim world.

At the same time, U.S. sanctions against Sudan--in particular, the inclusion of Sudan on the list of "state sponsors of terrorism"--prohibited U.S. companies from cashing in on Sudan's growing oil business. Capital from China, along with Malaysia and India, filled the investment vacuum. China has spent more than $8 billion to get Sudan's oil flowing, including the construction of the key pipeline. Sudan currently supplies 30 percent of the oil consumed in China.

It's little wonder that the U.S. was eager to broker the 2005 peace treaty, as officials hoped that Sudanese markets could soon open to U.S. companies. Bashir had already turned into a partial collaborator in the U.S. "war on terror," so the way seemed clear to normalizing relations.

The greedy smiles disappeared, however, when Khartoum responded to another U.S.-approved insurgency--in Darfur--with mass murder. In the face of worldwide horror at the new civil war in the west, the lifting of U.S. sanctions had to be put off indefinitely.

The U.S. turned to Plan B: Get South Sudan ready for independence, and--voilà--the U.S. would have a new oil-rich client that's open for business.

Covert aid to the Southern rebel force, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), became open assistance from DynCorp, a CIA-infused private contractor whose toolkit ranges from oilfield logistics to military training--a for-profit activity that's apparently allowed while sanctions are in place.

With military-to-military connections cemented even before the birth of the new country, the U.S. enlisted the help of regional allies to broker this year's vote. This includes Uganda and Kenya, which already have significant investments in the South. South Africa sent former President Thabo Mbeki to be the prime mediator in negotiations over the terms of the referendum. As president, Mbeki brokered the 2005 peace treaty with U.S. help.

One foreign policy specialist in Johannesburg told the Inter Press Service that South African president Jacob Zuma's "first step would be to pay a state visit to the new country and take a big South African business delegation with him. It's about opening up opportunities for South Africa in a new country."

The U.S. special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration, promised U.S.-backed security, infrastructure and investment to induce local governors, chiefs and strongmen to smooth the way to the independence vote.

Sarah Childress remarked in the Wall Street Journal that the efforts of Gration and others "marks an apparent victory for U.S. foreign policy in east Africa--one that has secured for Washington a deeper advisory role" in the new nation.

Childress neglected to note that the U.S. "victory" is a coup against its global rival, China. She kept her eye on the bottom line, noting that "[p]roduction and concessions in the oil-rich south have long been controlled by the north, and it will take time before the South is able to assume control of the business or open its doors to Western companies."

Meanwhile, other U.S. diplomats and Sen. John Kerry pressured Bashir in person, and Barack Obama wrote him directly to say that the U.S. would remove Sudan from the State Department list of terror sponsors if Bashir allowed and honored the independence vote.

Obama's offer has a dual purpose, of course. Lifting of U.S. sanctions is a major inducement for a regime that may soon lose substantial oil revenue, and it would also complete the reopening of Sudan to U.S. investment. It's not clear whether Obama's offer places any conditions on the regime's behavior in Darfur, where 300,000 have died and ceasefire agreements come and go. In fact, some observers predict an intensification of the conflict as Darfurians take heart from the example of the referendum in South Sudan.

THE SOUTH'S revolt has deep roots, beginning long before U.S. officials became sympathetic to it. The civil war began when Southern soldiers mutinied against Northern officers in 1955, a year before independence from Britain. War continued at different intensities for 50 years, with barely a decade of peace, from 1972-83.

The South's grievances centered around the longstanding concentration of power in the hands of Northerners. After independence, the best jobs and services remained in the northern Nile valley known as the "Arab triangle." Seventy percent of residents in the three provinces around Khartoum have access to piped water, while Southerners rely on wells and boreholes--and make do with less than 100 miles of paved roads.

Successive regimes in Khartoum also conducted campaigns to spread the dominance of Arabic and the influence of Islam--although most Sudanese speak African languages, while most residents of the South are Christian or animist.

The most recent phase of the war followed Chevron's 1978 discovery of oil in the South. In 1983, U.S.-backed President Gaafar Nimeiry put down a new army mutiny and dissolved the Southern Regional Government. Nimeiry, who had recently gained the backing of religious parties, also imposed shariah law.

Within months, Southerners founded the SPLA, commanded by economist-turned-soldier John Garang, who studied at Grinnell College in Iowa and received officer training at Fort Benning.

In 1985, a popular uprising centered in Khartoum, including a general strike over food and fuel prices, overthrew Nimeiry. Power, however, fell to a military-security elite that continued repression and pressed forward Nimeiry's campaign of "Islamization."

In the South, the regime supported the growing reach of Islamic banks. Their investment plans included the mechanization of agriculture, a program that harmonized with demands from the International Monetary Fund and USAID to replace subsistence farming with production of cash crops for export. The policy "drew new regions into the civil war," according to a book by specialist Douglas Johnson.

Khartoum pioneered a war strategy of arming indigenous ethnic militias to massacre and displace members of ethnic groups that supported the rebellion, thus freeing up choice land for the regime's allies--and clearing oil-rich areas of potential rebels. The regime later employed this practice of building up proxy militias in Sudan's west when it armed the Arabic-speaking Janjaweed against rebels in Darfur after 2000.

You'd never know it from today's pious intonations about human rights and self-determination--or the rhetoric of war against Islamist radicalism--but in the 1980s, the U.S. supported the repression in the South, even when Khartoum-backed militias were taking Southerners as slaves for sale in the North.

Oil was a consideration, but the U.S. also backed the Sudanese dictatorship because the Soviet-aligned regime of Haile Mengistu in Ethiopia was backing the Southern rebels.

In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up, and the Mengistu regime collapsed. Khartoum, which had served the U.S. as a strategic counterweight to Soviet influence in the region, was suddenly not so useful. Besides, the latest Sudanese regime--led by Bashir along with radical Islamist Hassan al-Turabi--supported Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. In response, George H.W. Bush cut off aid to Sudan in the middle of a regional famine.

In the ensuing years, the U.S.-backed Ugandan regime of Yoweri Museveni took up Mengistu's role as the cross-border supporter of the Southern rebels, a move that signaled that the U.S. had switched sides. WikiLeaks recently revealed that the U.S. nodded approval for years while another regional client, Kenya, shipped arms to the SPLA.

In retaliation against Uganda, Bashir's government supported the cultish Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, a group that has since spread depredation in Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Many voters in the Southern referendum this month have said they fear that Bashir could interfere with an independent South Sudan by continuing to support groups like the LRA. This includes militias in the disputed and oil-rich Abyei region on the border between North and South.

AS THE U.S. was shifting its support toward the Southern rebels, the regime in the North, under the influence of Turabi, was setting itself up as a center of Islamist politics.

Turabi hosted a range of Islamists, from relatively mainstream figures to radicals including Osama bin Laden, who, like Turabi and Bashir, had broken with the U.S. over its use of Saudi Arabia as a staging ground for war in the Middle East. Previously, bin Laden was a Cold War ally of the U.S. against the Russians in Afghanistan.

In 1993, Bill Clinton's State Department put Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terror. Two years later, the Bashir regime made an overture to the West by assisting France in the capture of "Carlos the Jackal," but in 1996, the U.S. pulled its diplomats from Khartoum, saying that their lives were threatened.

According to Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, the U.S. pullout followed a decision by Khartoum CIA station chief Cofer Black to put bin Laden under surveillance. Bin-Laden apparently concluded that the U.S. planned to kill him, and sent his own assassin to try to kill Black.

Black later became chief of the al-Qaeda task force at CIA headquarters and now chairs a Blackwater subsidiary.

In 1996, just months after the U.S. pulled its diplomats and spies from Khartoum, Bashir expelled bin Laden, who made his way back to Afghanistan. Bashir--whose real ideology appears to Arab chauvinist--was willing to ditch his Islamist connections when it suited his interest to appease the West.

In 1998, al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bill Clinton responded with cruise missiles aimed at bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan and the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, which allegedly made ingredients for chemical weapons. The U.S. later acknowledged quietly that the al-Shifa plant had no connection to weapons or to al-Qaeda. The destruction of the plant, whose key product was anti-malarial medicine, is likely to have condemned thousands of Sudanese to death.

In the years before the U.S. attack, Bashir had tried to marginalize his Islamist co-ruler Turabi--and finally ousted him from the government in 1999. Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Bashir took another step toward the U.S. by handing over documents and 30 individuals to U.S. custody. Sudan nonetheless stayed on the U.S. "terror list."

Turabi soon helped found the Justice and Equality Movement rebel group in Darfur, an Islamist complement to Darfur's African-identified Sudan Liberation Army, which had the backing of the U.S. and the SPLA.

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, U.S. commentators occasionally voiced hopes that John Garang of the SPLA could stitch together a U.S.-friendly political alternative to Bashir, a potential new government that would accommodate the Arab and Muslim mainstream, rebel forces in Darfur and the South, and the oppressed Beja minority based along the Red Sea coast.

Garang was one of the few credible Southern political figures who still favored the geographic unity of Sudan. Garang became state vice president following the 2005 peace treaty.

U.S. hopes for "turning" the whole of Sudan back into the U.S. camp--as it had been during the Cold War--died with Garang when his helicopter crashed in the same year. The Darfur war also set back any U.S. plans to build closer relations with Khartoum.

Over the years when the U.S. shifted its support from Khartoum to the Southern rebels, the constants in U.S. policy have been a drive to secure access to Sudan's oil and an imperative to box out its major global rival--first the USSR, now China. U.S. geopolitical interests finally tilted toward South Sudanese independence just in time for the first U.S. president of African descent to champion the cause of self-determination.

THE NEW country still needs to dig out from the destruction of the civil war.

The toll is staggering. South Sudan's estimated population is a mere 8.8 million, but 2 million or more died in the war. By the time of the 2005 peace agreement, 2 million war refugees were crowded into the slums of Khartoum, with 2 million more scattered in camps to the south.

Since then, 1 million have returned from the "Arab triangle," with 180,000 arriving just since November, according to the UN. More than half a million more are expected to return South this year. As in Darfur, the displacement of millions of people has left the majority destitute and hungry. Nearly one in seven children dies before reaching age five.

It was not always this way. South Sudan's vast territory possesses rich soil, water from the Nile, and more cattle per capita than anywhere else in Africa. During the decade of respite from civil war from 1972-83, the region was quickly becoming the breadbasket of the region, according to specialist Alex de Waal.

Oil revenue will help in rebuilding people's lives--if it doesn't end up in the pockets of a new elite that has grown up since the cease-fire. The successors of Garang are president Salva Kiir, a Dinka and a war hero, and vice president Riek Machar, a strongman of the next-largest tribe, the Nuer.

The allotment of positions by ethnic group could portend a future of narrow, competing fiefdoms--a recipe for corruption and government nonfeasance. Mbeki told the New York Times that if South Sudan fails to "manage [its] diversity will get the same fractures that took place in the whole of Sudan in south Sudan."

Ethnic cleavages may shape the outcomes of two major unresolved questions of the secession--citizenship rights and the status of Abyei.

Residents of Abyei, the oil-rich province that straddles the border, were supposed to choose whether to join the North or South at the same time that Southerners voted on secession, but negotiators deadlocked on who qualified as a resident. Many people in Abyei are nomadic, so their residence may be questioned, but the real source of contention is that the Misseriya tribe fought on the side of Khartoum during the civil war--and might tip the vote toward the North.

It's also still not clear whether Southerners in the North--or vice versa--will have citizenship rights where they live. In a worst-case scenario, ethnic cleansing would be the final midwife to national separation. The Northern regime has already announced plans to deport homeless child refugees back to the South, according to the Sudan Tribune.

Much thus depends on what happens in Northern politics. With the vote on secession, Bashir's fate is now tied more closely to the U.S. Obama's offer to lift sanctions was not just a bribe to get Bashir to respect the vote. It was also a lifeline for Bashir as he faces critics who will say he "lost" the South and got nothing for it.

Bashir faces opposition on all sides, from Africans in Darfur to the Beja rebels--and, crucially, from the Islamists including Turabi, who have a national base. Bashir placed Turabi under arrest after the secession vote when Turabi called for a Tunisia-style uprising in Sudan.

Bashir, like Nimeiry before him, may also face opposition from the urban poor. In anticipation of the loss of oil revenues to South Sudan, Bashir raised the price of sugar and fuel, according to Nisrin Elamin, writing on In the same week, U.S. agriculture officials seconded the UN's recent warning of a potential "food price shock" worldwide.

With the Tunisian and Algerian revolts in mind, U.S. officials may tilt even more toward support of Bashir as they fear what forces would replace them. They could offer relief, for example, from Sudan's $36 billion foreign debt. That would give Bashir incentive to keeping playing along with the peaceful separation of the South.

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